Sunday, August 1, 2010

Too Old to Dance, Too Young to Weld

a.k.a. "My Love/Hate (Mostly Hate) Relationship with Flashdance"

"I'm a steelworker/I kill what I eat."
-- Steve Albini, "Steelworker"

As an old hand at So-Bad-It's-Good, there's nothing particularly odd about admitting that I own a copy of Flashdance. I mean, I've watched The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies more than once. Come to think of it, more than twice. Not even counting the Mystery Science Theatre version.

What I've never, ever told another human being before is: I kinda liked Flashdance the first time I saw it. Wow. It actually hurts to say that. Funny it's so hard to admit, now that it doesn't matter to anybody, even me. I remember the vehemence with which I despised it and everything it stood for, and how much I mocked to my unsuspecting teenage friends, who uncritically enjoyed it for the silly Hollywood fairy tale it is. But deep down, a part of me secretly enjoyed it too.

Embarrassingly enough, after seeing the movie, I had a secret dream of taking dance lessons. These took place in a cartoonish vision of life in the big city, borrowed from sitcomy movies (of the kind written by Neil Simon in the '70s), where I pictured myself walking down the sidewalk with a bag full of workout clothes, and maybe a loaf of French bread. I fell in with punk rockers instead, and that all worked out much better. But for a fleeting time, I wanted to believe in Flashdance, because it managed to manipulate the little girl who never got to take ballet lessons.

Now, knowing me as well as I do, I'm almost certain that I would have hated ballet, with all its fussy precision, if I'd actually studied it back in elementary school. Sports, board games, even the Brownies were too confining for me. It is, however, a chicken/egg situation: would I have chafed under the structure and rebelled, as would seem in character? Or, if I had been exposed to such discipline as a child, would I have learned the value of it? Just like Jennifer Beals' Alex, I never got the chance to find out. Unlike the fictional version, who was the same age as I was in 1983, I knew perfectly well even then that neither of us would really be able to "have it all."

Standard disclaimer applies: the following is in no way meant as a criticism of the many people who have fond memories of Flashdance, or accept its fable of empowerment at face value. As a devotee of Rock Dancer, I'm obviously in no position to judge. And I don't want to ruin anyone's innocent enjoyment. I'm mainly interested in exploring why this particular movie has always put my hackles up, so feel free to bolt now.

For those of you who are still here, let the evisceration begin. First things first: the music. I hated the music! In fact, I hated that whole Fame/Flashdance/Footloose spectrum, and even more, I still do. Many songs that I disliked in the past, I can now look back on fondly. But "What a Feeling" raises the bile in me like I'm still an Angry Young Woman.

I didn't start out as a music snob. I used to listen to the radio, and I liked the majority of it. The FFF movies (and their horrible soundtracks) come from the era when my taste and Top 40 began to diverge. What I find so annoying about the Flashdance songs is that they seem to take themselves seriously, without bothering to have any substance to back up their attitude. They're overwrought, emotionally bombastic, while remaining bland and generic in their sentiments.

Like that "Gloria" song. Re-watching the movie, I remember that when I saw Flashdance for the first time, and realized the song was starting, I was like: Dear God no, not "Gloria"! Laura Branigan is emoting for all she's worth, stretching her voice, being all dramatic and operatic, and the music is all synthesizer-symphonic, but it's not really in the service of anything. She's breaking her back singing "I think they got your NUMBER! I think they got the ALIAS! That you've been living UNDER!"

I know, I know: Rock Dancer! But it's like Laura Branigan and Irene Cara were the beginning of the whole Bonnie Tyler "Total Eclipse of the Heart"/Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston era -- people with these technically fine voices acting like they're singing something so important, but the lyrics and situations are banal. I always remember the Mariah Carey song "Emotions" in this regard, with lyrics like "You got me feeling emotions." Disgust? Scorn? Could she be more specific? The exact same problem as "What a Feeling," which contains more unspecified emotion. I know there's lots of disco piffle that I don't judge so harshly -- ridiculous songs like "Fly Robin Fly" and "Shake Your Booty" -- but those songs were fun and silly and danceable. They had no pretentions.

At any rate, a movie about dancing with music I despised (hey! Despising something is a feeling!) has already got one strike against it. With that in mind, if you stick it out to the end of the post, I will unveil my alternate Hindi disco Flashdance soundtrack, which I think you'll agree would improve it no end -- even if you don't hate the original the way I do.

And then there's the story. OMG! 18-year-old Alex works as a welder in a steel mill by day, and by night, does arty modern dance (no nudity) in a blue collar bar frequented by her coworkers.


Her dream is to join the prestigious local ballet company, although she has no ballet training whatsoever. She starts dating her much older boss, who gets her an audition. She overcomes her fears and wows the judges. The end.

In her book Salaam Bollywood, Indian film journalist Bhawana Somaaya interviews the director of a children's home about the problem of runaways who came to Mumbai, either to meet movie stars, or become movie stars, and how they end up on the streets. She describes them as "led astray by false promises and impossible dreams." Now, in the making-of features on the Flashdance DVDs, the producer and director sound very sincere that they were trying to make a female empowerment story, a "Rocky for girls." Jennifer Beals was cast because she was the actress who most appealed to the women who saw the screen tests, and they wanted someone women would relate to, not mainly someone guys would be hot for. Unfortunately, the story they chose to tell -- the details of her underdog scenario -- subvert that by giving the audience only false promises and impossible dreams.

It's one thing to make an inspirational film about following your dreams. But for it to actually be inspirational, the dreams have to be achievable. I could dream about becoming a Catholic priest, but my desire isn't going to make it possible. A sports team might have a distant shot at winning the big game, but nobody makes it to the pros when they've never played the game before. And nobody auditions for a football team by playing tennis. It doesn't matter if you're the best tennis player in the world, that's not going to get you to the NFL.

Or, to paraphrase The Big Lebowski: "This isn't 'Nam. This is ballet. There are rules."

When the Star Wars movies have Yoda telling anyone they're "too old to begin the training," the first thing I think of is ALWAYS ballet. I recommend Zelda Fitzgerald's gorgeously baroque novel Save Me the Waltz for a grueling depiction of what it's like for someone who attempts to start serious ballet studies in her twenties, as Fitzgerald herself did.

But even if Alex could beat the odds, what she performs at the big audition is more a gymnastics routine, involving leaps, spins, and tumbling, rather than dancing as such, much less anything that would be useful in a ballet company. I'm going to guess that ballet judges have seen talented gymnasts before, at least watching the Olympics. They don't rush out and hire them for Swan Lake.

What's going to happen when she shows up on Monday, and is supposed to dance with people who were in "pre-ballet" classes when they were four years old? Who've been training for pointe since they were twelve? Does she know what a tendu is?

The movie makes a point of contrasting tomboyish, blue collar Alex, with her wild hair, heavy boots, and baggy clothes, and the rarefied world of the ballet dancers with their buns and their toe shoes.

But this is the world that it is. Alex is supposed to be a breath of fresh air in an uptight, snobbish establishment -- but she also supposedly wants to be part of that establishment. It's a particular kind of annoying American fantasy, wanting to be recognized, appreciated, as a ballet dancer, without knowing anything about ballet. The film would be more honest if she looked at the ballet company and said, you know what? This isn't for me. I'm from the street, I do things my own way, and that's fine. After all, the one scene in the movie that has real credibility is performed by honest-to-goodness break dancers (the Rock Steady Crew).

Ballet, though, is something different. It has survived as an art form, and kept its identity, because it's a discipline, in which things are done just so. Even in the most entry level classes, you put your hair in a bun, you put your feet exactly where they tell you to, and all the terms are in French. Because that's what ballet is. If you don't do it that way, it may be a valid form of dance, but it ain't ballet. And it's never going to be. Obviously, I also have wild hair and baggy clothes, so I can identify with Alex feeling alienated amongst the dainty ballerinas, but it's ridiculous to blame ballet for being ballet.

I'll note here that although Alex has multiple jobs, and seems to be in no bad shape, financially, there is no indication that she's ever taken a single class in ballet as such, despite that being her dream. Nor has she bothered to pick up a pair of shoes, which, I was recently surprised to discover, aren't even expensive.

Audition Strike #1: Those are not ballet shoes, my friends.

A side problem is that the only reason she gets the audition is because she's dating her boss, a rich older man who's able to pull some strings for her. Because he believes in her dreams, etc: but also because she's freaking gorgeous. What happens to the girl with dreams and talents who has nothing to lure a sugar daddy with?

It's frustrating in that the story offers us a potentially inspiring story with sidekick Jeannie, who's been training as a skater for some big ice show. Unlike Alex, this is something she's halfway prepared for, based on her own hard work. In the film, Jeannie flubs her big audition and becomes disillusioned, her dreams derailed. Now, if she managed to overcome that, with her own skill and determination -- well, in these people's hands, it would probably still be a paper-thin movie. But it might be a little more to the point than what we get.

It's also sort of odd that, after the audition, boss Alex's boss Nick says "She'll do better next time," and Alex sadly responds, "There won't be a next time." Why not? There are no other ice shows in America? If it's meant to be age, actress Sunny Johnson was actually thirty in 1983, but I'd never have guessed. And the United States Figure Skating Association has official competitions for people all the way to ages 61 and up!

For no other reason than she's not lucky enough to be Jennifer Beals, the poor ice skater ends up at Lee Ving's sleazy strip joint, not so much actually stripping, but lounging around topless. At least we can understand how this job pays her anything, unlike the bar where Alex and her friends dance without getting tips. Showgirls is almost a corrective, as if someone realized the only way certain elements -- like the conversation Alex has with an embittered, world-weary fellow flashdancer -- would make sense is if the gals were actual strippers. And yes, that movie's writer Joe Esterhasz also wrote Flashdance.

And what about that welding? I'm admittedly no expert, but plenty of people online have commenting that when they or family members were in the industry in the '80s, it generally took two years of training to qualify as a welder, and then sometimes an apprenticeship before you could get a job. I would be happy to hear from anyone with specialized info on this subject!

Last minute factoids:

Jennifer Beals reminds me of Apollonia in Purple Rain. At first viewing I just thought she couldn't act. But it's really more that both of them come across like sweet girls who've suddenly found themselves in the middle of a major motion picture. They're relatively natural, and they're not trying too hard. For girls obviously cast 'cause they're pretty, they're not doing too badly. They just don't know how to make the most of being on camera: a little too girl-next-door to be really dynamic.

My husband pointed out that the line "And she's dancing like she's never danced before" actually has two interpretations. It's safe to assume they intended the meaning "she's exceeding herself," but literally, it also says she's dancing like this is the first time she's ever danced.

He also pointed out that the ending doesn't actually tell us anything about the result of the audition. The thrilled reactions of the judges, and her joyously bounding into Michael Nouri's arms, both imply that Alex got the gig. But by not saying so in so many words, it's still got plausible deniability.

Bizarrely enough, "Gloria" singer Laura Branigan, and Sunny Johnson, who ice skated to it, both died of brain aneurysms. It took less coincidence than that for, say, Poltergeist to get a reputation as a curse.

According to the IMDB,  "Irene Cara wrote the lyrics to the film's Oscar-winning theme song while riding in a car to the recording studio the day she recorded the song." Let's just say that explains a lot.

Also, if the IMDB is to be believed, the ultimate in movie "might have beens" -- David Cronenberg was offered the chance to direct. The same year that Videodrome came out! Just the thought of "David Cronenberg's Flashdance" is almost enough to make my head explode.

And finally, my alternate soundtrack of danceable hits:

"He's a Dream" (also known as "that song where Jennifer Beals dumps water on herself") -- "Barso Re" (Guru)

"Maniac" -- "Nach Baliye" (Bunty Aur Babli)

"I Love Rock N Roll." Okay, I love Joan Jett. But this song is so wildly inappropriate for montage of Girls in Heavy Makeup Do Aerobics Against Stark White Backdrop, it's totally tarnished by association. (Nor could I find the scene on YouTube). Here we need something silly and fun, to clue the audience in that we KNOW this is silly. Hence -- "Shut Up and Bounce" (Dostana)

"Lady Lady Lady" (a.k.a. The Love Montage. Particularly hard to choose, because anything would be an improvement) -- "Pyar Kar" (Dil To Pagal Hai)

"Manhunt" -- "Love Mere Hit Hit" (Billu)

"Imagination" (the Kabuki TV song) -- "Crazy Kiya Re" (Dhoom 2).

"Gloria" There is no love for the ice skating! The only other video I could find with the actual scene from the movie had a different song edited in. Great minds think alike! -- "Jimmy" (from the M.I.A. album Kala). Ahhh, now that makes me feel so much better!

"What a Feeling" is the toughest, but I'm going to say -- "Dance Pe Chance" (Rab Ne Bana De Jodi)

So, until next time, remember ... you may not be able to "have it all," but you can still take your passion, and make it happen. While you're doing that, though, better outfits, a decent soundtrack, and basic logic will go a long, long way!


Perrie said...

Ha,ha! Excellent dissection!

I have to admit I loved Flashdance at one point (along with the other 2 "F's")... but I did have problems with the whole "nail the audition with gymnastics and no previous training" theory.
And her acting annoyed me. And her man was creepy, not sexy. And she was too busy to have a dog (although she was clearly fond of him).
The music didn't bother me so much. Infectious and appropriate for the carefree 80's. Silly with no substance- definitely. But it makes me forget my millenium melancholy and feel footloose again. Albeit good ole' Michael Myers being the original inspiration behind "Maniac" still befuddles me. ;-)

Trishymouse said...

THAT my friend, is one damned fine blog post. That took a lot of thought, insight, research, blood, sweat, and tears - and time! GOOD JOB!! And thanks for sharing. :)

Filmi Girl said...

I was too young for Flashdance when it came out but I have to admit to digging this one out because it was $5.00 at Target and Jennifer Beals was pretty smoking on The L Word... ;P

Anarchivist said...

Perrie: I don't think I could sit through Footloose
again for any reason. :)

And I agree with you about the man and especially the dog. When does she walk him?

Trish: aw shucks, this was one of my short posts. Ha!

Filmi Girl: I found Jennifer Beals annoying at the time, but in retrospect, I thought she was one of the less annoying things about it. I don't think it was her fault. And she is vair beautiful, there's no doubt about that!

Anonymous said...

I would like to say that after many years I just watched the movie again a few days ago and sorry to say, was again a sucker for its charms!!
Yes, maybe the premise is thin, the electro pop Giorgio Moroder soundtrack is too syrupy and synth heavy, the ending implausible and Michael Nouri too old to be dating his employee, but it still made me want Alex to rise to the occasion and show those ballet snobs she has the raw talent to pull off the audition and get the man (and the dog) in the end!
I also cried my eyes out, especially during the 'Lady, Lady, Lady' montage and that final sweet scene when she jumps into Nick's arms and offers him a rose.
I'll take "Flashdance" any day over the banal 'audience-tested' rom-com crap now being foisted upon us, plausibility flaws and all.
Think I'll go listen to 'Love Theme' again and ball my eyes out....!;)